“If you want to know a woman, touch her hair.”
So goes the tagline on the playbill for “’da Kink in My Hair,” Trey Anthony’s popular Canadian musical. The central character is a free-spirited Jamaican hairdresser named Novelette, whose bustling beauty salon brings her in contact with a devoted clientele of disparate women (mainly, but not only, black).
Director Thomas W. Jones II’s Horizon Theatre staging casts Terry Burrell in the part, hot off her celebrated one-woman Alliance show as Ethel Waters. With the slightest laying on of hands — and cued by a mystical sound effect — Novelette can “read” the hair of her customers, essentially unlocking their innermost thoughts and feelings.
A minor misgiving about “’da Kink” is the episodic structure of Anthony’s script, which regularly relegates Novelette to the periphery, while others in the ensemble (eight actresses playing a dozen roles) each gets her own dramatic or comedic monologue (or two) — usually including a big musical number (or two) to go with it.
(The songs are accompanied by Monica Carter and music director S. Renee Clark, the venerable local veteran who’s also credited as one of the score’s composers, alongside Michael McElroy, Carol Maillard and Emarkus Harper.)
But a major kink is how too many of the women come across as emblematic types more so than real people, and how their various back stories seem somewhat cliched instead of truly profound.
Sharmaine (Marliss Amiea) is a prissy TV sex symbol, with straight blond hair and allegedly bleached skin, and with a certain skeleton in her proverbial closet. Nia (Maiesha McQueen), literally the “black sheep” of her family, barely grieves the death of her estranged mother, who always favored Nia’s lighter-skinned sister.
Trina (Onya Russell) struggles with the pressure of proving herself as a young (black) businesswoman in an “old (white) boy’s network.” Suzy (Jennifer Alice Acker), the sole white character, was banished by her Southern family for having an out-of-wedlock child with a black man.
In the most graceful and delicate hands, though, even familiar archetypes and platitudes can register as utterly humane and unique. In an early vignette as Patsy, a devout churchgoing mother whose teenage son died a victim of gun violence, Minka Wiltz impresses with nuance and skill. Near the end, so does Jeanette Illidge as Milly, a young Caribbean girl adopted by an abusive stepfather.
Ultimately, as exquisitely performed as it is, Milly’s scene feels rather removed and apart from the rest of the show — which is not to say beside the point. What is, more blatantly, is a rambunctious routine with McQueen hamming it up as Miss Enid, a frisky grandmother who simply pops in and out for a sexually suggestive bit about sweet potato pie, and a boisterous song. (To be fair, the opening-night audience ate it all up.)
In many of his previous Horizon collaborations (“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Sheddin’”), Jones has shown himself to be one of the finest directors in town, but “’da Kink” isn’t his best hair day.
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